I have authored a novel for Amazon's self-publishing program. It's called The Suit in the Backpack.
Budget Travel - A Short Story Set in France
I was visiting southern France in the spring of 2008. My first stop in the country was Nice, a small city that I had not heard of before I happened on an advertisement for a seat sale a couple of months earlier. I enjoyed my time in the beachside city on the Meditteranean Sea but I also looked forward to leaving Nice as I had never been to Paris. It was this larger city that was the main target of my trip.
During my time in Nice, I stayed in a hostel with dormitory-style rooms and I'd had the good fortune of making a friend during my five days there, a man my age named Conrad. On the fourth morning that I spent in Nice, he prepared to leave as his itinerary took him to Italy while mine would take me north the next day. It so happened that, as he went, so went the good luck I'd had with social relationships during the early parts of my travels.
When I said goodbye to Conrad, he was sitting in the common area of the hostel. At that time, I couldn't help but note that he was sitting in the immediate company of someone that I had judged as shifty during my stay. I wasn't sure of the man's name that Conrad spoke with, but the fellow certainly wasn't on the friendly side in terms of the vibe he gave off.
This man had also shared the same dorm room as Conrad and I over the last few days and I'd made attempts to speak with the stranger on some occasions. However, every time I did so, my efforts were met with no response even when I was certain that the man had heard me. As far as I knew he'd behaved the same way towards Conrad and so I found it strange that the two were speaking to one another just minutes before my friend was to depart. Later on that morning, at a time when I was researching the travel costs of getting all the way to Paris from Nice, this strange man broke the ice with me.
"Hoy," he said in an accent that I thought was English or Irish, "I 'aird that cher lookin' to go up to Paris."
I assumed that he'd received that information from Conrad and I was immediately intrigued. In my research, I had not found an acceptable travel deal to get from Nice to Paris and I wondered if maybe this stranger was about to present an opportunity to cut some costs. If he did, then that helped make him attractive for the moment, even if I found him offputting at other times.
"Yessss!" I replied sharply with raised eyebrows. "I'm kinda lookin' over prices righ' now. You headed there too?"
"Uv coehz," he said in a way that communicated a degree of frustration with me, as though I should have automatically assumed that he was heading there too. He then sneered and motioned his nose toward my laptop. "Yer nuht gunna fine anythin' fer less than one-fiftay euro lookin' online," he continued, "but I'm drivin' to Paris at thuh crack uh dawn and if you wanna royd I ken charge you only fiftay."
I knew that his price quote of one hundred and fifty euros was a mistake, maybe even a lie. I'd already found that you could take a night train to Paris, like the movie, for only sixty-five euros from Nice. That wasn't a cheap price when I converted it over to Canadian dollars and, adding insult to injury, the timing of the next available train to Paris meant that I would have to stay an extra day at the hostel, something I didn't want to do now that Conrad was gone.
However, my inclination was that the price that this man was offering me was a rip-off. As far as I could see I would be paying for 100% of the gas cost and then some. For some reason, I felt better about an honest company ripping me off than this anti-social character doing so, someone who only broke the ice with me when he saw a chance to swindle me.
"I'll think about it," I said. "I think we're bunkin' in the same room."
"'k," he said, kind of choked up, and he started to turn away.
"Shayne," I said, extending my hand before he fully turned.
He looked at my open palm for a split second and then extended his. It was at this moment where I felt that I had a read on him. It seemed at first like he didn't really want to shake my hand, but did so only when he calculated that there could be something in it for him.
"Andreas," he remarked as we shook hands ever so briefly and he walked away.
By this point, Conrad was nowhere to be found and I wouldn't see him again, however, we would converse online several months later. As it turned out, he did send Andreas in my direction before leaving the hostel after learning that we, Andreas and I, were both headed in the same direction. An important point that Conrad told me when we reconvened several months later, one that I never knew while I was in France, was that Andreas wasn't actually going to Paris but just up to Lyon, a city that was about 40% of the way to the French capital from Nice. That Andreas wanted to charge me fifty euros, a high price for a shared ride to Paris, and then dump me off in Lyon was a point that my rideshare would keep hidden from me at all times.
After the short exchange with Andreas, I weighed my options thoughtfully with the information that I had at the time. I concluded for the time being that I would be better off paying a company to take responsibility for my travel arrangements rather than an individual that I'd just met, one who seemed odd with palpable grumpiness. The former offered a guarantee and had to be worried about the reputation of their business. The latter could ditch me without giving a refund and I would have little recourse.
However, I also knew that I'd overspent in Nice. Therefore, shaving thirty euros off of my trip to Paris would certainly make me feel better. I found my dormmate and offered him thirty-five euros for the trip, fifteen up front and twenty when we got to the capital city. He countered with twenty up front, five more in Lyon, and ten more when we got to Paris. I agreed, but then I found it peculiar that he wanted the twenty euros immediately, even though the plan was to leave the next morning.
"I'll pay you when we're in the car," I said, a remark that I thought a reasonable person would find agreeable. However, when he acted as though he had been affronted, that was another occasion where I wondered if there was something not quite right about him.
That last day in Nice I did little as a tourist, mainly because the city seemed empty with Conrad gone. But that night, before heading off to sleep, I made sure to pre-pack and I had a late shower. At about 6 am the following morning, as I slept in bed, Andreas flicked my temple as one might flick a bug off of a table. That meant that it was time to go and before we left I did little more than brush my teeth, return my room key, and get my deposit back from the hostel. By 6:10 am we were both in the vicinity of Andreas's car.
"Five mo' minutes and I woulda luft ya," he claimed, a comment that made me feel good about not paying him in advance.
He drove a small hatchback that only had two seats. In the rear of the vehicle, there was a deep trunk where we both stored our bags. I didn't really like having a locked trunk between me and my bag, a lock that I didn't have the key to, however, there really was no space up in the front of the car. The way I ended up looking at it, Andreas having my bag in his trunk was a way for him to guarantee that I wouldn't stiff him in Paris: he could hold my bag until I evened my bill up with him, which seemed fair to me.
The vehicle he drove was different from the ones I'd seen in France to that point because both the driver's and passenger's seats were switched around. At first, I actually went to enter on the wrong side, but when I saw the steering wheel through the driver's-side window I quickly corrected my actions as Andreas walked up behind me, tsk-ing. When I sat down on the other side of the car, I reached into my wallet and found twenty euros for him. As I did so I glanced at him and his eyeballs seemed very focused on the other bills that I had in my wallet.
"So that's five more in Lyon and then ten in Paris, right?" I asked apprehensively.
"Ken we do ten in Lyon?" he asked and I shook my head slightly.
"'k," he said abruptly, with squinted and hateful eyes.
We didn't talk a whole lot, but when I asked about why the steering wheel was on the right side of the car Andreas muttered something about how I should pay attention to people's accents. It was a remark that seemed to highlight my inability to connect a certain set of dots, as though I should have known that the car was British from the way he spoke. It was with this remark that I fully determined that he was antisocial through and through. A normal person would just participate in small talk over trifles without trying to make his or her counterpart feel like an idiot.
As he drove, I sensed that he had a lot of confidence in where he was going. Along the "Route de Grenoble" there were both train tracks and a river that ran parallel to the highway. There were also mountains in the area, although none as majestic as the ones back home in Alberta. Furthermore, the area seemed more on the arid side and, in that way, everything reminded me more of the Okanagan. It was not desert, but it was not lush. It was not flat, but there was nothing towering.
A huge difference between home in western Canada and where I was in France was how the latter had a town or village almost every ten minutes. When I thought of a road trip, I thought of fence posts for miles on end, undeveloped land, isolation, and signs that told you how far away the next gas station was. In France, or at least this part of it, it felt like civilization never ended and for a good hour of driving I wasn't even sure that we had left Nice.
That was bad because I wanted the trip to quickly. When there wasn't tense silence in the car Andreas was swearing about something or other. It seemed that the pace of the traffic was particularly bothersome for him and, in truth, we did seem to be moving slow. It also seemed like he was paying some attention to the signals on the dashboard a lot and I wondered if he was having any kind of car trouble. But having woken up at such an early time the drama wasn't enough to hold my interest and I faded in and out of a nap over the six hours that it took just to get to Grenoble. With the time about midday when we arrived, I asked Andreas if there were any plans to stop for lunch.
"No," he replied sternly. "You ken go fer lunch in Lyon."
At the time, the comment struck me as odd, but I didn't think much of it for long. It felt like he should have said "we" could go for lunch in Lyon. To make sense of the remark, I presumed that he couldn't use the pronoun "we" in that context because of his antisocialness. Not knowing that he planned to ditch me in Lyon, I imagined lunch would be more like "him" and "I" going to the same restaurant but sitting separately.
When we passed through Grenoble I started to notice that Andreas almost constantly looked down at the readings on his dashboard. I wondered if the car's RPMs were high or if maybe the vehicle was overheating. We pulled into a gas station when we got into the rural areas again and I noticed, with some concern, that Andreas seemed notably perturbed.
"Wite 'air," he ordered as he exited the vehicle and walked into the station's store.
I actually wanted to go in the station to use the restroom and I wondered why he'd ordered me to stay put. Then I wondered why he'd ordered me to do anything at all and I further wondered some more about why I was listening.
Did I do it because my bag was in his trunk and because I didn't fully trust him to not drive off with it if I rubbed him the wrong way? Did I do it because I wanted to stay on good terms with him until we got to what I thought would be Paris?
I knew I could be pushed around, at least for a little while, by someone that behaved in a domineering way. However, I definitely had a threshold for that and it wasn't like it was a large one.
Whether I was ready to stand up for myself or not, bladder thresholds were a different thing. After a short deliberation, I figured that if he was going to run off with my stuff then he wouldn't be doing it too quickly. He needed gas and I knew it would take a few minutes for him to fill up. As for staying on good terms with him, I figured he'd like me more for using a bathroom as a bathroom instead of his car as one.
"Salle de bains, sil vous plait," I said to the clerk in the station as Andreas looked through the drink coolers.
The clerk passed me a key and pointed me to the side of the building. When I returned, Andreas was filling his car and then he started tinkering underneath the hood.
"D'ya know much about vayickles?" he asked in an uncharacteristically sweet voice through the window on the side of the car.
"Not a whole lot," I said. "Why? Havin' a problem?"
He nodded his head and described a certain feeling when he drove the car. According to Andreas, when he pressed the gas pedal it didn't seem like the car responded with its normal power. My first thought on the matter was that the changes he noticed actually had something to do with me and my bag. I was a hefty unit and my bag weighed a bit too. Together we might have been about 275 pounds, a weight that the car didn't normally have to transport.
In my mind, maybe Andreas just had to give his tiny car more gas to account for the heavier-than-normal load it was hauling. But it was a point that I decided not to bring up because it suggested that sticking me curbside was the solution to how hard his vehicle was working. That might have solved Andreas's problem, but it certainly didn't solve mine.
"Check the transmission fluid," I said through the window.
He made a "come here" motion with his left-pointer finger, an action I found a little bit affronting. I then directed his attention to the transmission dipstick but didn't do a whole lot about the car after that despite a small amount of vehicle knowledge. After a minute of reading his car's manual, Andreas sighed loudly and seemed to give up. A couple of minutes later we were back out on the road again.
I didn't actually notice anything unusual about the way the car was running myself, but then I had no previous experience with the vehicle to compare to. All I noticed was that Andreas was constantly looking down at the readings on his dashboard and frequently muttering swears of frustration under his breath. Then, after we drove for another twenty minutes from the gas station, a rumbling sound came out from under the hood. With that Andreas swore out loud as he slapped the steering wheel and pulled off to the side before we both got out. When he lifted the hood it was either smoke or steam that escaped from the inside and into the air. I figured that a leak must have been sprung and that fluid had sprayed into the heat of the engine.
"What a pain!" he said with his hands on his head as he looked over the steaming engine. A moment later he directed his angered attention over toward me. "I thut ya said that things wuh fine!!"
"I never said that," I retorted and he glared at me.
I got the feeling that he was trying to shift some responsibility for his car's problems to me, maybe believing that putting a guilt trip on me might lead to me paying for upcoming towing costs. However, paying costs associated with his vehicle certainly wasn't part of my plan and that had nothing to do with the fact that he was a jerk.
I was a minimalist in life in terms of my possessions. I'd gone without a car during my adulthood and there were all kinds of inconveniences associated with that. However, the one major convenience, besides the saved money on car payments, was that I didn't have to deal with random car troubles. That issue was the domain of property owners and, in my mind, I'd be damned if I suffered the inconveniences of having no vehicle while shouldering the inconveniences that fell upon vehicle owners at the same time.
From where we stalled on the highway I could see houses on our side of the road in the distance back toward Grenoble. Otherwise, there was nothing but farmland on each side of the highway. The passing vehicles were numerous and it seemed pretty clear to me that they were our best hope for rescue as we were both dependent on the kindness of strangers now.
For my part, once we hitched a ride I had no intentions of staying with Andreas. He wasn't my friend, I owed him nothing, and he'd been brash with me. However, my travel companion seemed to have alternate plans.
Andreas closed the hood to his car and walked some steps toward the barrier on the side of the highway. He stared away from me into a farmer's field for a few moments.
"Shoyne," he said softly, "I need ja t' stigh with m' car while I go get 'elp."
It was funny how people's voice tones changed when they needed a favor.
"No," I said and he turned around and gave me the evil eye.
"Why nauht?!" he asked sharply.
"Because this is your car dude. If ya think I'm waitin' 'ere fer more than twennie minutes while you go get help you ken forget about it," I said.
He gulped and he turned his face away from me again.
"I ken get 'elp 'air in thirdy," he said. "I've gut relations aroun'."
"Really?" I asked, a little more optimistically. "Don't cha have a cellular on ya?"
He shook his head, kept his back turned, and replied "no" as cars drove by.
"Salut!!" a voice then yelled out from about twenty meters down the highway, one that caught both Andreas's attention and my own.
"Salut!" I replied and I walked toward a man who had parked his car on the shoulder ahead of us. "Tu parle anglais mon ami?"
"Yes," he said. "Is your car broke down?"
"It's not my car, but his," I replied and directed the man's attention toward Andreas.
My travel companion then gestured with an open palm to some space away from me, as though he wanted to talk to the helpful stranger privately. If Andreas thought that it was smart to keep his conversation away from my ears, I thought differently. I knew that the conversations that you couldn't be party to in life were the ones that you needed to hear the most. To me, Andreas's invitation to the man to move to an area away from me screamed out that whatever he spoke about was a mini-conspiracy against my interests somehow. If my instincts on the matter were spot on, Andreas was telling the man information that contradicted what I'd been told, likely pertaining in some way to how long it would take for him to go get help. Yes, I was sure that Andreas was asking for a ride to a destination further away than the 30 minutes he said it would take.
A minute later, Andreas directed the man back to his car and then the Brit came up to me privately.
"I'll be buhk in huff 'n hour," he said, "forty-five max. In the meantime, I need ja ta mayhk shuh the car doesn't get towed away and I need a piece of I.D. from ya too."
I thought about it for a moment and forty-five minutes didn't seem like a vast amount of time. However, there was no way I was giving him an I.D. card.
"Okay," I said, "I'll wait but I'm not givin' you my passport or nothin'. In fact, I actually want my bag out as well while I wait."
He smirked at me in a distrustful way and shook his head ever so slightly.
"I'll only be forty-five," he said. "Jus' relax for a bit. Anjoy thuh sainuhry."
With that stunning indifference to my demand to be in possession of something I owned he power locked both of the doors to the car and walked away. That he had a certain opinion of me in doing so was clear as day. After all, there was a way to get my bag out of the trunk of the car without his car keys. His impression of me must have been that I wouldn't dare take that option.
I didn't wear a watch and nor did I have access to my laptop. However, when I was sure that fifteen minutes had expired I started to explore the side of the highway, looking for a good-sized rock. There was a two-foot barrier on the side of the road and I looked over top of it, but found nothing of note that could help.
About one hundred meters up the highway, in the direction of Lyon, I noticed a road sign that was visible to opposing traffic. I was mostly hoping that it would say how far I was from the nearest town. I decided to walk to inspect it, but all it referenced were the turnoffs for Grenoble, Milan, and Turin heading back toward Nice.
As time passed, it was impossible not to think about what the consequences would be if I broke a window on Andreas's car. After all, if I did break into his car he might file a police report against me. I had no reason to believe that he knew my last name, but if there was any willpower on the part of the police then Andreas could direct them to my hostel stay in Nice. I had registered under my legal name and I had used my correct home address. Andreas knew the room I slept in, the bed I slept in, and the time frame I had been in Nice. For certain, the hostel's software could be wielded to reveal my identity.
Yet, it seemed possible even probable, that no one would spend much time bothering with me. Police could be pretty nonchalant. Furthermore, I was on the road, I was therefore hard to track, and what I did one day could be five hundred miles behind me the next. Lastly, there was a more important point: even if the police did take an interest in me I felt as though my actions were explainable.
I had been abandoned on the side of a rural road with no bathroom, no water, and no food. While I agreed to a 45-minute wait, I felt that much longer than that meant that I could free myself from my difficult situation with whatever means I had available. That was especially true given that I had no way of tracking Andreas's movements, no way of knowing if he'd been sidetracked, and no way of knowing if he was honestly on his way back to the car. All I knew was that he was a jerk.
While walking back to the car I noticed a pile of rubble about thirty meters off of the highway. The rubble had to be on private property because it was on the edge of a field that was clearly maintained by someone. With no one nearby, I decided to climb over the barrier on the side of the highway in order to inspect the junk for something that would break a window without risking any part of my hand.
If I judged the pile to be anything it was just a point where someone had accumulated garbage that had come from the highway. There was a muffler, scrunched-up tin cans, two blown-out tires, a shoe with a sock, a board with a nail, and other kinds of random items. The only sturdy object I found that I could carry was a glass one-liter pop bottle. I wondered if the base of the bottle would break what's-his-name's window or if the window would break the bottle first. I grabbed it and the sock with plans to use the latter as a glove to help protect my hand.
When I got back to the car, I figured twenty-five minutes or so had passed since Andreas had left the scene. I looked around and judged that I was safe enough in isolation to commit an action that looked like a crime. Only passing motorists could possibly see me and it was possible to avoid their eyes as they were infrequent enough.
When I was sure that at least an hour passed, I started to tap on the driver's-side window, the side nearest the curb, with the corner base of the pop bottle. I'd already long since spotted the release to the trunk in the foot area of the driver's side of the car. After a short while of tapping, I gained confidence that the base of the bottle was actually stronger than the window and I tapped a little harder.
Pressure. Time. Fracture.
I didn't shatter the whole window but only made a small hole that I enlarged with the spout end of the bottle. With the sock around my hand and up my arm, I reached inside and lifted the knob that unlocked the door. I then entered the vehicle and sat for a minute, allowing my heart rate to calm back down. For sure, I didn't feel as though I was doing anything wrong, however, I still understood how things could look.
In the driver's-side cup holder, I found Andreas's unopened drink that he got from the gas station. In the glove compartment, I found a packed lunch with both a rice-and-salmon concoction and an apple.
I decided, with no one around to argue with me, that I'd paid four-sevenths of the agreed fare to get to Paris from Nice yet did not receive anything close to four-sevenths of the distance. I paid myself the balance with his lunch and drink and then tucked the falsely incriminating evidence under his seat along with the sock and pop bottle.
Next, I flipped open the trunk and retrieved my precious backpack. The thought, that I had access to Andreas's bag, did cross my mind but I never did touch it. I put my bag on the hood of the car and stuck out my thumb. Easy as pie, someone pulled over.
"Tu parle anglais?" I asked with a smile.
"Non," the driver replied with a shaking head.
"Ummmm.....Paris?" I asked.
"Non," he replied with a shaking head.
"Ummmm.....Lyon?" I asked.
"Oui," he said with a nod.
I could tell that my unwitting 'getaway' driver wondered about the broken-down car and, in a way, it was nice that he couldn't speak English nor I much French. When I imagined his perspective I couldn't help but think that he must have wondered why I would want to go to Paris and leave my car behind so far.
"L'auto est mon ami," I said.
What I meant to say was "the car is my friend's" but what I really said was "the car is my friend."
After an hour of driving, he dropped me off in Lyon at a public transit station that I figured was probably not too far out of the way for him. He wrote a message on a piece of paper for me: "Gare de Lyon Part-Dieu" it read.
"Gare" was a word that I felt like I had seen recently, but it's meaning escaped me.
"Gare?" I asked with a confused look on my face.
"Oui, Gare," the man replied.
"Qu'est-ce que c'est?" I asked, meaning "What is it?" in English.
He looked troubled for a moment and then said "Choo-choo!!" and I knew he meant that there was a train there for me to Paris.
"Ahhh," I said with a smile before speaking slowly. "Gare....de....Lyon Part-Dieu a une CHOO-CHOO pour moi a Paris."
"Oui," the man said with a smile.
"Aujourd'hui?" I asked, meaning "Today?"
"Oui," the man said.
"Bon," I said. "Merci!"
We shook hands and I left.
It only cost about eighteen euros to get from Lyon to Paris, but I didn't leave that night. I spotted a hostel near the train station and felt that I should stay there instead of risking travel to Paris and arriving in the evening without accommodation. I did, however, make a train reservation for the next afternoon and spent the remainder of the evening planning the days ahead. With the money I'd paid to Andreas combined with the train ticket from Lyon, I did save the 30 euros I'd originally aimed for.
However, the mental effects of breaking the window were on my mind and it was this card that my opponent had played against me. In paranoia, I wondered if the sound of police sirens were for me and part of me wondered if Andreas would track me down in town. However, every time I thought of it I realized that finding someone in any city was a difficult thing. Even if he knew I was in Lyon, there were a lot of hostels and he had no way to know which one I would go to. I really didn't think the police would help Andreas much. If they did, then I didn't think that they would do it too quickly.
The last of the incident played out the next morning when the manager of the hostel in Nice emailed me, a bilingual man. He informed me that someone named Andreas was trying to get my contact information and wondered if he, the hostel manager, had permission to give it out. I said "no" in response and thanked him for asking.
"May I ask what it's about?" he replied. "He said that you vandalized his car."
I thought a good while about how I would respond to that, fully aware that there was a small chance that it could end up in court. The last thing I wanted to do was admit that I caused the damage because it's a fact of life that the things that you can justify to yourself aren't universally accepted.
"We shared a ride to Paris yesterday, but his car broke down outside of Grenoble," I replied. "He hitched a ride to Lyon to get help from a relative and refused to allow me to leave the vicinity of his car (he kept my backpack locked in his trunk and refused to allow me access, locking the car doors)," I continued. "He failed to make it back after three hours," I lied, "and I started to wonder if I was going to have to sleep roadside. As daylight faded," I lied, "I was fortunate to find a coat hanger in the rubble on the side of the road and was doubly fortunate that the driver's-side window had an ever-so-slight opening. In elongating the hanger and bending it into a hook, I was able to reach the trunk release with it through the window opening, something that allowed me to retrieve my bag. I then had to walk two hours to Grenoble and, if his car was vandalized as you say, it must have been done by someone in the time between when I left it and when Mr. Andreas finally arrived back. Please don't give out my information, but do feel free to share the facts above with him. If he presses then just tell him that it's out of your hands to give out my information because I do have a right to privacy that I thank you for respecting. Five stars on TripAdvisor. I promise."
I decided that the message was perfect before I tapped the "Send" button. It made me into a victim that had to babysit a car for hours under the duress of not knowing when the owner would return, something that contained a lot of truth. It avoided admitting that I committed the alleged vandalism and it suggested an alternate way for the damage to have occurred. Furthermore, the message lied about my current location and put me in the opposite direction of the one I had gone in.
The only real regret I had was not standing up to Andreas before he left me standing by the car. Maybe, it would have been better if I had told him that if he didn't let me have my bag then he'd return to find his car window smashed. However, that would have created a possibly hostile moment with no clarity as to how it would have played out. Furthermore, he actually shocked me a bit with his arrogance toward my rights and that left me discombobulated for a few moments.
When I rumbled into Paris on a train the next day, the words "Budget travel," parted my lips as I shook my head. I decided that saving travel costs could be complicated. For all I knew, Andreas was thinking the exact same thing because his plan to rip me off had backfired far more than my plan to save myself some cash had.
© 2021 Shane Lambert